WASHINGTON — Catholic leaders hope to use Pope Francis’ visit in September as an opportunity to share the joy of the faith with the public.
At a time when some Church teachings are misunderstood or even attacked as out of date or discriminatory, one Catholic organization is preparing the faithful in three cities to project a “reasonable, happy and winsome” face of the Catholic Church to the deluge of reporters following the papal visit.
“This is a great opportunity for the Church to spread its message,” said Kim Daniels, senior advisor of Catholic Voices USA told a group of white, black, Asian, and Hispanic Catholics —from a variety of professions and walks of life — at a recent training to equip trainees for media interviews and public speaking engagements.
The trainees gathered at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., on May 14, four months before Pope Francis was slated to visit the nation’s capital — a major event in the life of U.S. Catholics, but also for mainstream media outlets that often lack expertise on Catholic practices and beliefs.
“We know so many Catholics who are on fire for their faith, who can explain it well, and know why they are Catholic. We want to make sure that those voices get out there,” Daniels told the Register.
Thousands of journalists coming to D.C. to write about Pope Francis’s visit are looking for a story, Daniels said, “and you have a story to tell; that’s just what we’re trying to do.”
The staff of Catholic Voices USA will share the basics in public relations with Catholic volunteers from Washington, Philadelphia, and New York — the three cities Pope Francis will visit while he is in the United States for the canonization of Blessed Junípero Serra, the World Meeting of Families, and to address the United Nations.
These volunteers will eventually be networked with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the respective archdioceses as they field media requests for lay Catholic sources.
The idea behind Catholic Voices USA is to train well-formed Catholic volunteers to represent the Church and explain it to reporters and people in the media. In 2012, the same strategy was employed by Catholic Voices UK, in advance of then-Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United Kingdom.
“The entire Catholic Voices’ U.S. team is thrilled to do anything and everything we can to welcome Pope Francis on his inaugural trip to the USA,” Christopher White, associate director of Catholic Voices USA, told the Register. “He has revitalized the faith of so many Catholics through both his words and actions and we're excited for him to bring that energy and example to us in person.”
White said he was “particularly thrilled with our team [of volunteer trainees] in D.C.,” pointing to their “energy and enthusiasm” for both the Church and the upcoming papal visit.
“We have a real blend of young professionals, lifelong practicing Catholics, and new converts all willing to speak about their positive experiences within the Church,” he said.
Crash Course in Communications
At the introductory May 14 training session, 16 participants received their first introduction to the art of media engagement, from Daniels, who previously served as a USCCB spokeswoman.
She told participants that reporters are approaching stories from a particular frame of reference, and the volunteers’ job was to help them reframe that story “in a way we know is true.”
For example, while abortion-rights advocates often present Catholic teaching on abortion as “anti-choice,” the trainees were reminded that the Church offers a compassionate and practical support that helps women deal with crisis pregnancies and bring their child to term.
Daniels spelled out the general principles of good communications. “Assume the first thing you say is all they hear,” she told the group.
“Show, don’t tell,” by having three key points, accompanied by stories, and backed up with some statistics at hand.
“Be readable, quotable and concise,” she added, urging the group to lead with the Church’s positive “Yes.”
Above all, Daniels encouraged the volunteers to view themselves as friendly, helpful representatives of the Church, like the “Peace Corps” — not going into battle like the “Marine Corps.”
“People won’t remember what you say as much as how you made them feel,” she said.
In Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), she noted, the Holy Father urged the faithful to be “joyful messengers of challenging proposals.”
Each of the Catholic Voices messengers-in-training has a unique background, and set of experiences they are bringing to the table: from the stay-at-home mom to the FBI agent. Half of the participants at the Washington training session came from the Archdiocese of Washington, and half came from an association of Catholic professionals called the Leonine Fellows.
William Mattison, a professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America (CUA), said the session gave him better insights into crafting his presentation of the Church’s message.
“I get a lot of opportunities to speak about these, and I feel I know the content, but I want to be able to package the answers more succinctly and effectively,” Mattison told the Register.
The CUA professor expressed his appreciation for Pope Francis’ ability “to get to the roots of the Gospel with God’s love for us, and mercy for us,” and was looking forward to helping people embrace that message when the Pope comes to D.C.
“I really like how this is an opportunity to witness — being grounded in our faith and not being nervous in communicating those messages,” said Jeanné Isler, a member of the pastoral council at St. Augustine, the mother church of black Catholics in Washington, D.C.
Isler said the training experience affirmed the need to trust in the Holy Spirit “and trust that our faith will help us tell the right stories and God will take care of the rest.”
She said the most valuable part of the training was “the emphasis on sharing our own stories and our own personal experiences about why we believe what we believe.”
Training in Three Cities
Catholic Voices conducted a similar training in Philadelphia attended by 50 Catholic volunteers, and the group will soon set a date for an introductory training session in New York City.
White told the Register that the first volunteers in New York session will complete four sessions, including a chance to practice their new skills before the pope’s arrival
The Catholic Voices team expects the volunteers will be confident representatives of the Church by the time Pope Francis sets foot in the U.S.
“Their energy and enthusiasm for both the Church and the papal visit is a real encouragement to our team,” said White. “I know that will be felt by all who encounter them.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.